Emergency Release Requests Mounting in Light of DC Jail Conditions

The Public Defender Service (PDS) for the District of Columbia released a memo calling for the release of all persons incarcerated at the DC Jail in the wake of the U.S. Marshals Service’s recent findings on the facility’s conditions. Multiple defense attorneys for pretrial detainees are filing emergency release motions due to these conditions as well. 

According to D.C. Witness data, as of Nov. 15, attorneys for at least 29 defendants charged in felony sex abuse, domestic violence and homicide cases have filed such motions, which call the jail’s conditions, “unsanitary, unsafe and unconstitutional.” The motions often argue that a detainee’s due process rights are violated if they are incarcerated under conditions posing a “substantial risk of serious harm.” The jail, or the Central Detention Facility, is DC’s main detention facility.

In the Nov. 1 memo, Acting U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia Lamont J. Ruffin informed DC Department of Corrections (DOC) Director Quincy Booth that he has forwarded the results of an unannounced inspection of the jail, which occurred during the week of Oct. 18, to the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division for review of potential violations of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, D.C. Witness previously reported.

The PDS release notes how its attorneys have raised issues over the jail’s conditions well before the inspection. They recently highlighted the issues in a video posted on Twitter, which features pretrial detainees talking about what they are experiencing.

“For years, the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, along with other legal and grass-roots organizations, has called out and challenged the D.C. Department of Corrections for its horrific treatment of nearly exclusively Black and Brown people detained at the D.C. Jail,” the memo states.

A motion filed by defense attorney Jason Tulley suggests his client has had difficulty receiving assistance for issues within his cell, largely due to the jail being understaffed. “Complaints about these conditions fall on deaf ears,” the motion reads. 

Tulley noted that the conditions of the jail are so terrible that when attempting to meet and work with his client on the case, it is simply not possible to due to the conditions being a distraction. The prosecution was ordered to respond in this case by Nov. 18. 

His motion, like others, cites the U.S. Marshals’ findings including: 

  • COVID-19 protocols not being followed by staff 
  • Staff members antagonizing defendants, directing them to “not cooperate’ with the review.” A DOC staff member was allegedly observed telling a detainee to, “stop snitching.”
  • Standing human sewage in multiple toilets in multiple occupied cells
  • Food and water withheld from detainees for punitive reasons
  • Water in some cells shut off for multiple days
  • Drug use, and a strong smell of marijuana

During a Nov. 8 hearing for a murder case, defense attorney Mani Golzari called the U.S. Marshals Service’s report a “factual statement of torture at the jail.” He said he is seeking the release of his pretrial client, Stanley Brown, into the High Intensity Supervision Program. 

“Please,” Golzari said, “Someone has to act.” 

Golzari said Brown is being held in a cell that “really wouldn’t be fit for a dog.” He said his client has had his water shut off and faced retaliation from officers. Golzari noted that defendants are held in custody based on the court’s conclusions, and said he did not want to receive “lip service.” 

“I am pleading with the court for human decency,” he told DC Superior Court Judge Milton Lee. “People are suffering. Deeply, deeply suffering.” 

Judge Lee held off ruling on the motion.

A majority of cases cite Helling V. McKinney, a 1993 case involving a Nevada state prisoner, among other cases. The prisoner claimed he was suffering unhealthy levels of second-hand smoke due to his cellmate smoking five packages of cigarettes every day, which he says violated his Eight Amendment rights to not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.

The majority opinion rejected the prosecution’s argument that the test of whether withholding medical care from prisoners was in “deliberate indifference” only applied to defendants with a current condition. Helling’s condition was not current but rather a result of the secondhand smoke. The precedent became the idea that deliberate indifference applies to secondary conditions like secondary smoke inhalation. 

The attorneys are using this, among other cases, to show that while officers may not be deliberately ignoring health problems they may be ignoring other problems, causing health issues.

Attorneys also cite the due process clause of the fifth amendment, referring to portions of Ruffin’s memo including the withholding of food and water from detainees as punishment, failure to follow COVID protocols and officers directing detainees not to cooperate with inspectors.

During a Nov. 12 hearing for murder defendant Rashon Hall, defense attorney Dana Page said her client has mold in his cell and is not receiving his daily medication. The motion for release, in this case, was denied but an evidentiary hearing was scheduled for Nov. 10 to further examine the problem. 

During another hearing, that same day, for another murder defendant, Lewkus Turner, Judge Neal Kravitz told defense attorney Jon Norris that additional information from the DC Jail and U.S. Marshals Service needs to be obtained before he makes a ruling. 

The inspection of DC’s detention facilities was triggered by allegations that staff members were mistreating pretrial detainees charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, according to court documents.  On Nov. 3, a letter was sent by Deputy Mayor of public safety and justice Chris Geldart to District Judge Amy Jackson and DC Superior Court Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring explaining how action will be taken to evaluate the jail further, according to court documents.

Defense attorney Kevin Mosley stated in a motion for his client’s release that more than a thousand complaints have been raised by incarcerated individuals at the jail’s Central Detention facility, but have gone ignored in the past.  The Central Detention Facility of the DC Jail, which was not described as being up to standards.

“As evidenced by the countless complaints of the nearly 1,500 predominantly Black and Brown residents of the Central Detention Facility, the Department of Corrections’ practice of acting with flagrant disregard for the health, safety, well-being, and basic constitutional rights of all its residents is long-standing. Absent immediate action by this Court, this mistreatment will undoubtedly continue. Mr. Morgan’s health and safety depend entirely on the actions of this Court.” 

The resident population of the DC Jail is 82.9 percent Black and 9.4 percent white, according to the Department of Corrections most recent demographics release.

Mosley’s motion also called the descriptions of the Central Detention Facility’s conditions “glaringly obvious” to detainees and attorneys. He argues that these defendants have a constitutional right to be released, according to court documents.

More motions are being filed based on these requirements. The DOC is currently under investigation in regards to the Marshal’s memo. 

The Central Treatment Facility, which is another DC correctional facility that holds pretrial detainees and is located next to the DC Jail, was described as being “largely appropriate and consistent with federal prisoner detention standards,” according to court documents. This facility held pretrial detainees from the Jan. 6 attack.

The PDS and DOC did not immediately respond to D.C. Witness’ requests for comment.